WASHINGTON -- Richard Grenell's tenure as the nation's top intelligence official may be short-lived, but he wasted no time this week starting to shape his team of advisers, ousting his office's No. 2 official -- a longtime intelligence officer -- and bringing in an expert on Trump conspiracy theories to help lead the agency, according to officials.Grenell has also requested the intelligence behind the classified briefing last week before the House Intelligence Committee in which officials told lawmakers that Russia was interfering in November's presidential election and that President Vladimir Putin of Russia favored President Donald Trump's reelection. The briefing later prompted Trump's anger as he complained that Democrats would use it against him.Joseph Maguire, the former acting director of national intelligence, and his deputy, Andrew Hallman, resigned Friday. Grenell told Hallman, popular in the office's Liberty Crossing headquarters, that his service was no longer needed, according to two officials. Hallman, who has worked in the office or at the CIA for three decades, expressed confidence in his colleagues in a statement but also referred to the "uncertainties that come with change."The ouster of Hallman and exit of Maguire, who also oversaw the National Counterterrorism Center, allowed Grenell to install his own leadership team.One of his first hires was Kashyap Patel, a senior National Security Council staff member and former key aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Patel will have a mandate to "clean house," CBS News reported, citing a person close to the matter.Patel was best known as the lead author of a politically charged memo two years ago that accused FBI and Justice Department leaders of abusing their surveillance powers to spy on a former Trump campaign adviser. The memo was widely criticized as misleading, although an inspector general later found other problems with aspects of the surveillance.Working with Nunes, Patel began what they called Objective Medusa to examine the FBI's investigation into whether anyone associated with the Trump campaign conspired with Russia's election interference in 2016."I hired him to bust doors down," Nunes told author Lee Smith for his book "The Plot Against the President," which chronicles Patel's investigations on behalf of the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee. Patel was interviewed extensively in the book, which claims without proof that journalists, diplomats, law enforcement and intelligence officials engaged in a vast plot to undermine Trump's campaign and then bring him down as president.As acting director of national intelligence, Grenell has access to any secrets he may want to review. And he has requested access to information from the CIA and other intelligence agencies, according to two people familiar with the matter.The revelations about last week's briefing reignited fears about Russia's continuing efforts to interfere in the U.S. election, including in the Democratic primary races.During the briefing, which was supposed to focus on coordination among government agencies to fight election interference, not the acts themselves, Republicans challenged the intelligence agencies' conclusion that the Russians continue to favor Trump. Some officials said the briefing was not meant to be controversial and that intelligence officials intended to simply reiterate what they had told the Senate Intelligence Committee weeks earlier.Intelligence officials have already documented instances of the Kremlin trying to influence U.S. politics, namely attempts by Russian military intelligence officers to hack into the Ukrainian energy company that once employed the son of former Vice President Joe Biden. Officials want to know whether the breach was an effort to help Trump, whose efforts to persuade Ukraine to announce investigations into Biden helped prompt his impeachment.And during the congressional impeachment hearings, Fiona Hill, a former senior White House official who worked on Russia issues, warned about Moscow's continued efforts to spread disinformation.Trump himself wrote in a January letter accompanying the administration's national counterintelligence strategy that "Russia remains a significant intelligence threat to United States interests -- employing aggressive acts to instigate and exacerbate tensions and instability in the United States, including interfering with the security of our elections."Intelligence officials were scheduled to brief the full House and Senate on election security March 10, arrangements that were made weeks ago, accounting to congressional aides.How long Grenell will be able to stay as the acting director is an open question. For him to remain past March 11 -- a limit imposed by federal law -- Trump must formally nominate someone else for the director of national intelligence post.Trump told reporters late Thursday that he was considering Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the intelligence committee, but Collins took himself out of the running Friday morning.Collins, who helped lead the president's impeachment defense, had received no advance notice that he was under consideration for the top intelligence post. He saw no reason to entertain a job he did not want, especially as he wages a special election battle for a Senate seat in his home state of Georgia."I know the problems in our intelligence community, but this is not a job that interests me at this time," Collins said on Fox Business. "It's not one that I would accept because I'm running a Senate race."People close to Collins have speculated that the president might have been trying to entice Collins out of that election to tamp down a messy intraparty fight that could cost Republicans control of the seat. Party leaders have converged around Sen. Kelly Loeffler since Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia appointed her to fill the state's vacant Senate seat late last year and have made no secret of their disdain for Collins' refusal to exit the race.A nomination to a Cabinet-level position would have required Collins to drop out of the race. But given his lack of intelligence experience and political track record, there was little likelihood the Senate would have confirmed him to the post.With Collins off the table, Trump will need another potential nominee. The White House is considering Pete Hoekstra, the former Republican congressman who is now the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, according to three officials.Whether the Senate would be willing to formally consider Hoekstra is unclear. But if Trump were to send a nomination to the Senate it would, under federal law, allow Grenell to serve for at least another six months.In a statement praising Maguire and Hallman, Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, made no reference to Grenell.On Friday, questions arose about Grenell's past employment after ProPublica reported that he had done work for a Moldovan oligarch named Vladimir Plahotniuc who was banned from entering the United States because of his involvement in significant corruption.Grenell wrote articles defending Plahotniuc but did not disclose he had been paid for his work, ProPublica reported. A lawyer speaking on Grenell's behalf said he was not required to register with the Justice Department because he was not working at the direction of a foreign power.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company
When Donald Trump suddenly gave pardons or commutations to 11 people on Tuesday, you only had to glance at several of the names to know that Trump was doing favors for people in his social circles—people like him. Now we’re getting more information on how Trump made his decisions and on his clemency plans going forward, and it’s all classic Trump.
Bernard Kerik, the corrupt former New York City police commissioner, got a call early Tuesday morning giving him just hours to get supporters to sign a letter backing a pardon. He worked the phones and got some prominent Republicans like Geraldo Rivera and Rep. Peter King to sign, and just before noon he got a personal call from Trump giving him the news. David Safavian, the former Bush administration official who called Kerik and told him to pull together the letter, also got a pardon for his role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Safavian works at the American Conservative Union, which is headed by the husband of a Trump adviser.
Another of Trump’s corrupt-rich-white-guys-like-me pardons went to Paul Pogue, whose family has given $200,000 to Trump’s reelection effort and whose son and daughter-in-law hang out with Don Jr. And so on. Trump did grant clemency Tuesday to a few people who weren’t corrupt rich white guys—but even they had an inside connection in the form of Alice Johnson, the woman whose sentence Trump commuted in 2018 after lobbying by Kim Kardashian West.
Since Trump seems to enjoy giving clemency—favoring personal phone calls to people not expecting clemency so he can soak up the shock and gratitude—he’ll be doing more of this in the coming months. And he has no plans to revert to the traditional process where the Justice Department vets petitions. Instead the White House is doing the Trump White House thing and having pardons overseen by “essentially an informal task force of at least a half-dozen presidential allies.” OBVIOUSLY Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner is heavily involved, as is former Florida attorney general and impeachment defense team member Pam Bondi.
Mass incarceration remains out of control and it’s reasonable for presidents to use executive power to mitigate some of the harm while Congress drags its feet about making the degree of change that’s really needed. But that should look like what President Obama did, taking a hard look at excessive sentences and using an actual process to grant clemency to 1,715 people, the vast majority of them nonviolent drug offenders. Obama should have done more, because there was so much to be done, but he did do more than the 12 presidents before him—combined. Trump, instead, is treating the pardon power like another way to do personal favors and soak up the adoration he craves. It’s not about justice, it’s about Donald Trump’s ego.